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Einstein: His Life and Universe by Walter Isaacson

December 10, 2011

Albert Einstein is the personification of intelligence, an icon of brilliance. The rare scientist whose revolutionary ideas propelled him to global celebrity and fundamentally changed our understanding of our universe. It’s hard to believe that the true details of a man’s biography could ever live up to the mythical image that we hold of Einstein. They do. I found in his character so many of the traits I most admire—intelligence, humility, creativity, curiosity, a tireless work ethic, eloquence, wit, rebelliousness, generosity, compassion. He was brilliant in nearly every way possible.

What set Einstein apart as a scientist was a unique combination of intelligence and creativity, a refusal to accept conventional thinking, and an almost religious belief in simplicity. He had an instinctual knack for finding commonalities that unified and gave order to science. In 1905, while working at the patent office in Bern, Switzerland (because he could not find work as a professor), he published four revolutionary scientific papers, including his Theory of Special Relativity (the speed of light is constant) and his Matter and Energy Equivalence theory, linking matter and energy such that a little matter is equivalent to an enormous amount of energy (famously expressed E=mc2). Many experts believe that Special Relativity would have been discovered by someone else within a year or two had Einstein not arrived at it, but his 1916 Theory of General Relativity, a geometric theory of gravitation that linked space and time, was such a great leap forward that it was as if Einstein had cheated and somehow gotten a glimpse of the cosmic answer sheet.

As he neared the age of 40, Einstein lamented, “anything truly novel is invented only during one’s youth.” This was a fairly safe prediction in his case—it would be nearly impossible for anyone, young or old, to ever top his string of scientific breakthroughs. Although the latter half of his life was not without contribution to science, most of his time would be spent in search of a unified field theory that linked the forces of gravity and electromagnetism. This would prove to be his white whale.

The prevailing winds of the scientific community were blowing in the direction of quantum mechanics, a theory about the interactions of particles that has at its core an acceptance of randomness, uncertainty, and a reality that is fundamentally changed by our observation of it. These were ideas to which Einstein was philosophically opposed. His famous quote, that God “does not play dice,” is in response to quantum mechanics. To him, particles did not behave randomly, and there was an underlying reality regardless of our observation of it.

Einstein was a headstrong man, and he realized the irony that his once rebellious mind refused to budge an inch to a new way of thinking. So in addition to searching for a unified field theory to replace quantum theory, he also enjoyed coming up with thought experiments designed to illuminate its flaws. Perhaps the most famous example is known as “Schrödinger’s Cat” (the final incarnation of the theory was authored by the physicist Erwin Schrödinger, but Einstein contributed much of the thinking). In the experiment, the uncertainty of quantum mechanics is amplified via an imagined chain reaction involving a Geiger counter, a hammer, a flask of hydrocyanic acid and a cat, leading to a paradoxical scenario in which the cat is both alive and dead.

Einstein was a theoretical physicist, so his most of his experiments took place in his head and were usually striking in their simple construction:  a man stands on a hill watching a train pass, a person in a box falling through space. Einstein believed that simple was beautiful. He was the scientific equivalent of a haiku master.

In 1933, the Nazis were coming to power in Germany. Einstein saw the warning signs and left the country, immigrating to the United States. Not long after, a clampdown on Jewish intellectuals forced many other scientists out of Germany and Einstein learned that he was on a list of German assassination targets. All his life, Einstein had been a pacifist. He had even urged people to refuse military service as a way to bring about world peace. But Hitler would change his mind.

In 1939, as Einstein sat lost in thought outside his rented summer cottage on Long Island, he received an unexpected visit from an old friend and colleague, Leó Szilárd, a physicist from Columbia University. Word out of Germany was that scientists in Berlin had managed to split a uranium atom. Upon hearing this news, Szilárd, who had been working on ways to create a nuclear chain reaction, immediately understood the implications. So did Einstein. It was his matter and energy equivalence theory in practice. The Germans were on a path to converting a tiny bit of mass—uranium atoms—into a massive amount of energy—an atomic explosion.

In late August, 1939, the Germans and Russians formed an alliance and France and Britain declared war. On October 11, a letter from Albert Einstein, ardent pacifist, was delivered to Franklin D. Roosevelt. It alerted the president of the pending threat in Germany and suggested “permanent contact maintained between the administration and the group of physicists working on [nuclear] chain reactions in America.”

Einstein was never directly involved in the Manhattan Project. Although he likely would have refused participation, he was never invited. J. Edgar Hoover, in his typical paranoia, was suspicious of Einstein’s German heritage and purported socialist connections. Nonetheless, when the atom bombs were dropped on Japan in 1945, Time magazine put Einstein’s face on its cover, mushroom cloud in the background, with the headline E=mc2. This popular perception of him as the father of the atom bomb haunted him the rest of his life. Before his death, Einstein said in an interview, “Perhaps I can be forgiven, because we all felt that there was a high probability that the Germans were working on this problem and they might succeed and use the atomic bomb and become the master race.”

In his later years, Einstein was an outspoken advocate of arms control. He believed that the best way to avoid global nuclear annihilation was to create an international governing body that could establish and enforce global law. But, like his unified field theory, this quest for worldwide unity would be left unfulfilled.

During the Red Scare, Einstein continued to be outspoken. He detested any government trying to limit freedom of thought, be it in Adolf Hitler or Joseph McCarthy. To him, the attack on civil liberties in reaction to Communism was a greater threat than Communism itself. He had seen the result of too much government control in Germany, and was worried the same would happen in the United States. He was critical of unrestrained capitalism, wary of a concentration of wealth, and concerned about the influence of money on the political system. He frequently found himself in the news, his strong views and unwillingness to back down often leading to confrontation and controversy, but he believed that his dissent and nonconformity made him a better American.

Einstein was an incredibly charming man. He was beloved by his neighbors when he lived in Princeton, famous yet familiar to those who saw him walking down the sidewalk, baggy clothes and wild hair, staring off in deep thought or chatting with students. There are stories of him helping local kids with their homework, of him serenading neighbors with his violin. But as Isaacson makes clear, perhaps the thing he understood least was how to connect with his own family. He was unfaithful to his wives and unavailable for his children. Although he found happiness in many of his other endeavors, it saddened me to read this. Because like any character that you love, you want them to succeed in everything.  Unfortunately, Einstein was human like the rest of us, flawed in a fundamental way.

What Isaacson’s biography does so well is to give a portrait of Einstein that is deep in all aspects. Without getting into the scientific weeds, he makes Einstein’s scientific successes feel spectacular and his failures heartbreaking. But Einstein’s life was about more than science. The way he thought and lived unified science with art, philosophy and politics. In a way, Isaacson gives us a unified theory of Einstein.

The last thing Albert Einstein wrote, before he went to sleep on the night he died, was a string of calculations. It was one last try to unlock another mystery of the universe. He never stopped wondering, never stopped searching for answers. Of all the great Einstein quotes, perhaps my favorite is this one:

“The most beautiful emotion we can experience is the mysterious. It is the fundamental emotion that stands at the cradle of all true art and science…To sense that behind anything that can be experienced there is something that our minds cannot grasp, whose beauty and sublimity reaches us only indirectly: this is religiousness. In this sense, and in this sense only, I am a devoutly religious man.”

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